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February 12, 2009

After paying dues in 2008, young Hokies return in 2009 looking to reap the rewards

By: Matt Kovatch

Head coach Pete Hughes and his staff head into the 2009 baseball season a lot more confident in the Hokies’ abilities than at this point a year ago. Whereas last season’s roster possessed boatloads of talent but not much certainty, the new campaign starts with that gap not quite so wide. The Hokies have overhauled their roster over the past two years and 2008 served as a way to evaluate all of that newfound talent. Now that players have carved out roles for themselves, 2009 looks to be an instrumental year in turning a slumping program back into the proud winner it once was. Here’s a look at each of the positional areas:


After starting nine games in 2008, Jesse Hahn will be making the move to the closer role in 2009.

Four Hokies who will definitely see plenty of time on the field include redshirt senior Ty Hohman, redshirt sophomore Michael Seaborn, and true sophomores Tony Balisteri and Austin Wates.

The key to the whole operation will be the play of Balisteri at shortstop. He started 32 games in that spot a year ago and had the up-and-down season that one would expect from a freshman, both at the plate and with the glove.

“Tony is our most athletic infielder,” Hughes said. “He makes plays that no one else on our team can make, but he needs to make the routine play. And he needs a nice, consistent approach at the plate where he puts the ball in play more often. If he can do that, our infield will be really solid.”

The coaches are really hoping Balisteri can lock himself in at short and be consistent from day-to-day simply because that allows them to move Hohman around to wherever he is needed. Hohman is as reliable as it gets at any of the four infield positions, including first.

“Tyler has been so steady,” Hughes said. “I feel comfortable putting him anywhere in the infield. We can use him as a swing guy if one of those others isn’t playing consistently.”

The others include Wates at second and Seaborn at third. Both had impressive offensive seasons as freshmen, but needed to tighten things up defensively, and that seems to have been taken care of in the fall.

First base will be a by-committee situation after losing stalwart Sean O’Brien to graduation. If Balisteri gets comfortable at short, Hohman could play first. It could be true freshman Ronnie Shaban, a versatile two-way guy who is also able to play second, third or short, or it could be the 6-foot-6 Matt Blow, who spent much of his time last year as a designated hitter. It could even be catcher Anthony Sosnoskie, who worked at first in the fall as a means of finding a way to keep his bat in the lineup when he gets a day off from behind the plate.


Hughes isn’t fretting about the outfield situation in 2009, and that probably has something to do with the fact that he has six players to mix and match in any combination.

“That’s our most competitive position on the team,” Hughes said. “Any one of those six guys can start for us and I wouldn’t be worried. I feel really good about our chances to win with any of those guys out there.”

Those six players include seniors Klint Reed and Sean Ryan, redshirt junior Steve Domecus, juniors Steve Bumbry and Mike Kaminski, and redshirt freshman Buddy Sosnoskie. Though all six will contribute, the opening day starters figure to be Domecus in left, Ryan in center and Sosnoskie in right.

Domecus comes to Blacksburg after one season at Moorpark College in California, where he played after spending his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara. He’s a versatile athlete who can hit and run, and he’s good enough at catcher that he will regularly spell Anthony Sosnoskie behind the plate.

Ryan started nearly every game in center a year ago and is likely to do so again. He is one of the better defenders in the ACC and has greatly improved his offensive game, hitting .305 in 2008.

Buddy Sosnoskie was expected to contribute a great deal last year as a two-way player, but shoulder surgery delayed his Hokie debut until this season. He won’t factor in on the mound in 2009, but he should see a great deal of time in the lineup because of his offensive talents and his potential to be a leadoff hitter.


The Hokies will have three capable catchers at their disposal in 2009, and it starts with junior Anthony Sosnoskie, who has steadily improved since splitting time as a freshman.

He played in all 45 games in 2008 before missing the final 10 contests with a broken cheekbone, and he finished among the team leaders in many offensive categories. He followed that up with a brilliant summer, finishing as the runner-up for MVP honors of the Southern Collegiate League. Hughes thinks that production can go even higher if he gets some rest this season.
Spelling Sosnoskie will be Domecus and sophomore Chris Kay. Domecus is very athletic behind the plate for his size (6-4, 220 pounds) and could probably start every day if not for Sosnoskie’s presence.

Not much was known of Kay’s ability until Sosnoskie went down with the injury last year, but he started the season’s final 10 games and performed rather impressively.

“I think catcher is our most skilled position right now,” Hughes said. “We have three capable guys, and that’s been a major area of concern for us the last two years. All three of them can catch every day at the ACC level.”


While the Hokies’ team ERA in 2008 was too high for their liking, the season proved to be extremely beneficial because it allowed a lot of pitchers to work through their struggles and find a role that is best suited for them.

The most obvious result of last year’s growing pains is that two-thirds of the 2009 weekend starting rotation spent much of last season coming out of the bullpen. Redshirt senior Rhett Ballard and sophomore Justin Wright figure to be options No. 1 and 2 against ACC foes this year after each smoothly made the transition from reliever to starter a season ago.

Ballard set a Tech record for relief appearances with 34 in 2007 and was on his way to doing it again last year before becoming a starter. While he didn’t earn the wins to prove it, the 6-6 submariner became the Hokies’ most valuable pitcher because of his ability to work deep into games, let alone the fact that he led the team in strikeouts with 74.

The left-handed Wright was almost an afterthought before the 2008 campaign but wound up as one of the team’s biggest surprises. He was so successful out of the bullpen in 17 relief appearances that the coaches tried his hand at starting against VCU in early April. Though he only threw 2.1 innings in that game, his workload steadily increased until he went the distance in an upset of No. 1 Miami in May.

Joining Ballard and Wright in the weekend rotation will likely be Sean McDermott, a left-handed sophomore who learned on the fly in 16 appearances (seven starts) as a freshman. Junior Josh Wymer and freshmen Mathew Price and Luke Erickson will be the main candidates for the mid-week starting roles.


The Hokie who made the biggest improvement in the offseason was 6-5 right-hander Jesse Hahn, and he also represents the biggest change in the pitching staff heading into the 2009 campaign. Hahn started a team-high nine games in 2008, but his stuff has become so electric that the Hokies intend on using him as a lights-out closer this season.

“The age-old question is what do you do with that arm?” Hughes said of Hahn. “Do you start him once a week? Or do you roll the dice with him as a closer and run the risk of not getting to a save situation? We think our program is better now to the point where we are going to be in save situations. We couldn’t do that last year, and that’s why Rhett became a starter. It’s not written in stone, but I think we’re good enough with enough depth to get to save situations this year.”

But as Hughes alluded to, there is no reason to have a dominant closer if you don’t have the middle relief to reach him when you need to. That’s where pitchers like juniors Ben Rowen, Kyle Cichy and Rob Whitley, redshirt sophomore Brandon Fisher, and even Wymer factor in.

“Those guys are going to be the most valuable part of our team,” Hughes said. “They’re going to have bridge the gap from our starters to our closer.”